The Daily Record: Future of transportation already on the move

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on September 21, 2017.

If you are like me, you probably get in your car each morning during the workweek and, depending on weather and other variables, commute into work in much the same fashion that you have for many years.

Our state’s highways and other major arteries have far more traffic and congestion than decades ago. And the automobiles and other motor vehicles on the road are, for the most part, safer and more reliable. New vehicles also offer more comforts and technology than in years past.

When you think about it, the basics of driving and commuting by car – the mode of transportation used by a majority of today’s workforce — hasn’t changed all that much in the past 40 or so years. The same is largely true for public or private bus transportation, as well as passenger rail and air travel.

But dramatic innovations are underway in personal and public transportation – driven in large part by forward-thinking startup companies and venturesome entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space X, and John Zimmer, CEO at the ride-sharing company Lyft, just to name a few.

Far more advanced

This innovation isn’t about hailing a ride from your office to across town for a meeting via the Uber or Lyft app on your phone or tablet.

The innovations that will shape the future of transportation are far more advanced. Combined, these innovations are leading to what some mobility experts are predicting will be a major transportation revolution in the next three to 10 years.  Changes that will be as transformative to business, the economy and daily life as the trans-continental rail system was in the 1800s.

What will be the positives and negatives of this revolution? Will workers, families, towns and cities thrive as a result or be shaken? What policies or programs should local, state, and federal government officials be taking to allow for innovation, while ensuring that jobs, economic stability and tax revenues aren’t unduly undermined?

These are just some of the many compelling questions that will be explored at the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Annual Transportation Summit Oct. 11 in Baltimore.

In the view of some experts, like Zimmer, we are just in the early stages of this revolution. But the movement is predicted to pick up speed as technologies fueling change are perfected and travelers set aside skepticism and grow more comfortable with the benefits that new and reinvented modes of transportation offer.

It could also result in tectonic shifts for businesses, jobs and more – just as the Internet and digital technologies have led to upheaval and change in many industries.

“Self-driving” or autonomous vehicles — which many have seen news reports about — are just one of the innovations afoot in transportation today. These innovations are not just being developed or tested in global high-tech hubs like San Francisco. Places like Pittsburgh and the Baltimore-Washington region will also play a role as the transportation revolution takes shape.

The revolution

Here is just a snapshot of some of what’s at the forefront of this revolution:

  • Lyft and General Motors have a formed a partnership to develop a network of on-demand autonomous vehicles. Road testing is underway in San Francisco and Phoenix. Zimmer of Lyft predicts that five years from now autonomous vehicles will provide the majority of Lyft rides in the United States.
  • Uber is testing autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh and Phoenix.
  • Web-giant Google has also entered the autonomous car race, launching Waymo.
  • Musk said in news reports last year that Tesla plans to build a fleet of self-driving, electric buses. Riders, he said, conceivably will summon the robotic bus with their phone.
  • Mobileye – bought by Intel Corp. this year for $15 billion — is advancing its mono-camera technology for cars and trucks. The company says on its website that the sensing technology can “identify shapes, like vehicles and pedestrians, as well as textures, like lane markings and traffic-sign text.”
  • Maryland officials have applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation to allow “autonomous vehicle” testing to help grow the emerging industry. Interstate 95 and roads at the Port of Baltimore and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport are among the places where such cars may be operating soon if the state gets the green light.
  • BI Intelligence predicts “platooning software — which allows multiple trucks to autonomously follow each other in a closely bunched convoy” thus cutting down on wind resistance— will be embraced by commercial trucking soon. The technology will help the industry trim its No. 1 cost: fuel.
  • The Maryland Transit Administration is overseeing a study on the possibility of a new high-speed train service between Baltimore and Washington. This service would run on technology, known as Magnetic Levitation, or Maglev, and speed passengers at 300 mph between the two cities in 15 minutes.  The Northeast Maglev, a company based in Washington, envisions offering a Superconducting Maglev system along the entire Northeast Corridor.
  • In July, news outlets reported that Musk posted on Twitter that he had verbal “government approval to build a high-speed underground transportation system from New York to Washington, with stops in Philadelphia and Baltimore.” Musk, who tweeted “NY-DC in 29 mins,” is behind a company known as Hyperloop One. It is developing new super high-speed technology which involves passengers and cargo in pods rocketing at perhaps 800 mph through vacuum tubes.
  • Along similar lines, Airbus is developing new passenger planes which allow for customized pods to be changed in and out of cabins. These pods offer different features and amenities for passengers. For example, passengers with young children may wish to buy tickets to travel in a family pod outfitted with play space.

You get a sense from these examples that there are jobs today, such as drivers for ride-sharing services and long-haul trucks, which will go by the wayside. Meanwhile jobs that currently do not exist, such as autonomous fleet manager and super-speed rail conductor, may emerge from the changing dynamics of mobility.

Without question, ideas and innovation in transportation are boundless and the revolution is underway. As we have seen in business and our personal lives, technology is at the root of the change and expediting the speed by which this revolution is thrust upon us.

Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record. 

Interested in learning more about the future of transportation and mobility? Register to attend the GBC’s Transportation Summit on October 11, 2017. Hear from: Colin Tooze, Director of Public Affairs, Uber; Robert Grant, Senior Director of Public Policy for North America, Lyft; and Wayne Rogers, Chairman and CEO, The Northeast Maglev.

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